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Those readers who follow the Expats Portugal blog will have probably seen a long recent thread about the opening of an Iceland store, down here in the Algarve.
I’m sure when the original poster typed his short message to share the news of the opening; he never expected it to generate 21 forum pages of comment, opinion, and, at times, vitriol. I myself voiced some strong opinions, but these were more in disagreement about the discussion’s descent into something akin to a class war, than about the opening of a British discount store and freezer centre.
The whole debacle raised an interesting question though, which is just how much us expats / immigrants should integrate or do integrate into our new home countries?
Various aspects of the culture of Portugal were strong factors in our decision to move here; strong family values, a relaxed pace of life, and a cultural existence that compels citizens to revere famous authors more highly than X Factor “stars” being just three examples. Simple, high quality cuisine was another reason we were likely to highlight when asked the “so why Portugal?” question.
We have been here around two years now, and have worked very hard to integrate. Our stuttering Portuguese has enabled us to make friends with our Portuguese neighbours, we don’t huff and puff when held up during shopping or driving because those in front of us have decided to have a chat, and we are familiar with the works of Saramago and Pessoa. If you were to walk into our home at around 9.30pm (because that is now when we usually eat dinner) you would be as likely to see us tucking into bacalhau a bras as beef stew and dumplings.
However, none of this means that we don’t get excited when we spot a jar of mint jelly, a frozen Yorkshire pudding, or (as joyfully happened last week) the opening of an English style butchers. I was perhaps initially surprised just how much you do come to miss things from “back home” once you have lived abroad for a while.
If you think about it, there’s nothing unusual about this. If you go for a wander around Stockwell in south London, you will find plenty of Portuguese shops and restaurants. The culinary variety that can be found in London is made all the more rich by the immigrant populations. Everybody wins, because the restaurant and food stores that provide comfort and familiar products to those populations also provide variety and new flavours to all.
Now, I know that Iceland is hardly a home of epicurean delights, but I’m not going to complain about increasing availability and value of products that add variety to our daily meals. After all, when we lived in London, we didn’t “eat English” every night, any more than we “eat Portuguese” every night here. Chinese, Indian and Italian all make at least a weekly appearance.
Integrating, to me, is about showing respect for our new home, contributing to the community, ensuring we operate our fiscal affairs according to the laws of Portugal, and respecting the cultural differences of our new country. I don’t think we’re really going to offend anyone by buying the occasional packet of smoked mackerel from Iceland (something I am greatly looking forward to, as it happens).
I do take the point that large stores make it more difficult for independent local businesses, but that situation is far too advanced for one more chain to make any difference. In fact, despite the recession, small businesses continue to pop up everywhere in our area, with low overheads that still, in my opinion, make it easier for entrepreneurial types to try something out here than back in the UK.
I’m quick to moan when I find myself in touristy areas such as the Albufeira strip, and see wall-to-wall English breakfasts, menus with no sign of any Portuguese, and sunburned Brits shouting “two large beers” without attempting so much as a “bom dia.” That does display a frustrating lack of integration. But I refuse to be judged for being pleased that I will soon be able to buy inexpensive Branston Pickle. And, who knows, some Portuguese people may even get a bit of a taste for frozen “double stuffed takeaway style pizzas with a sweet chilli layer.” Sometimes, after a hard day, crappy junk-food in front of the TV is just what the doctor ordered…..
Image credit: higgot